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1st. Lt. William Cowling: Report from the Dachau LiberationRead the actual letter and report filed by 1st Lt. William Cowling on liberating Dachau. This section submitted by John Cowling,his son. Click on pictures to see full-size view of photos (4) taken at the liberation.

View of the Camp

The Letter

28 April

Dear Folks:

  Boy oh boy am I having a heck of a time trying to findtime to write. We are really moving. My days have beenconsisting of getting up between 6:30 and 7:30 eating,throwing my stuff in a Jeep and taking off. When visitingthe regiments and sometimes the battalions and then head fora new CP. By time we get into the new CP and set up it is11 o'clock at night or later and I am so tired. I just hitthe sack, so I really haven't had much time to write. Ireceived the fruit cake the other day and boy was it good.That package contained all the right things. I have lost mychap stick and my lips were chapped so it really came inhandy.

  Well I was interrupted at this point and it is now the30th of April and the very first minute I have had to write. Since I started this letter I have had the most, I supposeyou would say, exciting, horrible and at the same timewonderful experience I have had ever or probably ever willhave. When I tell it to you your probably won't believe allthe details. I knew when I heard such stories back in theStates I never believed them and now even after seeing withmy own eyes, it is hard for me to believe it. Well, to goon with the story as you know we have been moving veryrapidly and oftentimes the boss and I get into the townsjust about the same time the front line troops do. Yesterday we started out to locate a company and a unitadvancing down a road. Enroute we learned from civiliansand two newspaper people that just off the main road was aconcentration camp of Dachau, oldest largest and mostnotorious camp in Germany. These newspaper people weregoing up to see the camp so we decided to go up too.

  Weride in a Jeep with a guard out ahead of the boys and wewere several hundred yards ahead as we approached the Camp. The first thing we came to was a railroad track leading outof the Camp with a lot of open box cars on it. As wecrossed the track and looked back into the cars the mosthorrible sight I have ever seen (up to that time) met myeyes. The cars were loaded with dead bodies. Most of themwere naked and all of them skin and bones. Honest theirlegs and arms were only a couple of inches around and theyhad no buttocks at all. Many of the bodies had bullet holesin the back of their heads. It made us sick at our stomachand so mad we could nothing but clinch our fists. Icouldn't even talk. We then moved on towards the Camp andmy Jeep was still several hundred yards ahead. As weapproached the main gate a German officer and a civilianwearing an International Red Cross band and carrying a whiteflag came out. We immediately filed out and I was justhoping he would make a funny move so I could hit the triggerof my tommy gun. He didn't however, and when he arrivedabreast of us he asked for an American officer. I informedhim he a was talking to one and he said he wished tosurrender the camp to me.

  About that time the Generalarrived and got the story from the German Lieutenant (thatthe Camp was still manned by German Guards who were armedbut had orders not to shoot at us but only to keep theprisoners in check.) Well about that time somebody startedshooting from over on our left flank and ducked but made theGermans stand in front of us. Finally the fire let up andwe sent one of the guards back for a company of infantry. The newspaper people said they were going on into Camp andI got permission to go on with them with my guard leavingthe others with the General. We went through one gate andspotted some Germans in a tower. I hollered in German forthem to come to me and they did. I sent them back to theguards and General and got on the front of the newspaperpeople's Jeep and headed for the gate.

  A man lay dead just in front of the gate. A bulletthrough his head. One of the Germans we had taken liftedhim out of the way and we dismounted and went through thegate into a large cement square about 800 squares surroundedby low black barracks and the whole works enclosed by barbedwire. When we entered the gate not a soul was in sight. Then suddenly people (few could call them that) came fromall directions. They were dirty, starved skeletons withtorn tattered clothes and they screamed and hollered andcried. They ran up and grabbed us. Myself and thenewspaper people and kissed our hands, our feet and all ofthem tried to touch us. They grabbed us and tossed us intothe air screaming at the top of their lungs. I finallymanaged to pull myself free and get to the gate and shut itso they could not get out. Then I felt something brush myshoulder and I turned to the left of the two block houseguarding the gate to find a white flag fluttering square inmy face and on the end of it inside the house eight Germans.

German Guards We Met

   I looked around the house and entered. I got the samequestion, are you an American Officer and said Yes. Theyturned over their arms, pistols and rifles to me and I toldthem to sit tight. I then went back outside and sent mydriver to get the Jeep. Then I went back into the Germansand took their arms and sent the pistols to my Jeep (I gaveall away but two). When I cam back out the General wasthere and the people inside the enclosure were all in thelarge square shouting and crying. Then a terrible thinghappened. Some of them in their frenzy charged the barbedwire fence to get out and embrace us and touch us. Immediately they were killed by an electric charge runningthrough the fence. I personally saw three die that way. Our troops arrived about that time and took the rest of theguards, Germans (who during all this time had remained inthe towers around the prison.) A number of them and Isincerely regret that I took the eight prisoners that I didafter a trip through Camp which I shall describe in aminute.

  Well the General attempted to get the thingorganized and an American Major who had been held in theCamp since September came out and we set him up as head ofthe prisoners. He soon picked me to quiet the prisonersdowns and explain to them that they must stay in the Campuntil we could get them deloused, and proper food andmedical care. Several newspaper people arrived aboutthat time and wanted to go through the Camp so we took themthrough with a guide furnished by the prisoners. The firstthing we came to were piles and piles of clothing, shoes,pants, shirts, coats, etc. Then we went into a room with atable with flowers on it and some soap and towels. Anotherdoor with the word showers lead off of this and upon goingthrough this room it appeared to be a shower room butinstead of water, gas came out and in two minutes the peoplewere dead. Next we went next door to four large ovens wherethey cremated the dead. Then we were taken to piles ofdead. There were from two to fifty people in a pile allnaked, starved and dead. There must have been about 1,000dead in all.

  Then we went through a building where fiftymen were guarded in a room the size of your kitchen. Therewere hundreds of typhus cases and all through the Camp mencheered us and tried to touch us. Incidentally many of thedead and living showed signs of horrible beatings andtorture. It is unbelievable how any human can treat othersas they were treated. One wasted little man came up andtouched my sleeve and kissed my hand. He spoke perfectEnglish and I asked him if he were American. He said no,Jewish and that he was one of the very few left thatthousands had been killed. He had been there six years. Hewas twenty-eight years old and looked to be sixty years old. The German I took prisoner are very fortunate they weretaken before I saw the Camp. I will never take anotherGerman prisoner armed or unarmed. How can they expect to dowhat they have done and simply say I quit and go scot free. I know now why our men kick and abuse the German prisoners. They are not fit to live.

  Well, that's my story. A day I will never forget. Itwill get a lot of publicity and you may see General Linden'sname connected with Dachau but you can know in your ownmind's that it was your son who was the first Americansoldier to enter the famous Camp of Dachau. I know thatsounds like bragging but I only say it because it is trueand I know that the story won't come out that was butseveral thousand prisoners will remember me. Incidentallythere was 32,000 prisoners in the Camp. They were Polish,Jewish, French, German and even American. Well I must stopnow. The next time I write I hope I can say that I got myfirst German and I don't mean prisoner.

  Owe the Germans a lot now.

   Incidentally, your griping about my going to the SouthPacific. I have only been in the Army a couple of years. Some of these people were in the hell hole of Dachau foryears. If I spend ten years in the Army during war I willnever go through what those people go through. Even if Iwere killed, I would be lucky compared to those people. Soif you still feel the jitters remember the people of Dachauand think how lucky I am no matter what happens.

  We will write and I will give you the rest of the storywhen I get home.


  View from Dachau's Gate

The Report


2 May 1945


   On 29 April General Linden, Assistant Division Commanderof the 42d Division, General Banfill of the Eight Air Force,and General Linden's aide, Lt. Cowling, and guards anddrivers were enroute to the left flank of the Division inthe area of the 222d Infantry, with the mission of locatingCol. Downard's battalion of the 222d Infantry and pushingthem on towards Munich. While passing through the city ofDachau a jeep bearing two newspaper reporters, a Stars andStripes reporter and a Miss Higgins from the New York HeraldTribune, questioned the aide, Lt. Cowling, as to thelocation of the concentration camp near the city limits. The lieutenant could not give them the exact location andinformed them that he did not believe any American troopshas as yet occupied the camp. General Linden at this timedirected the aide to continue on the road up towards thecamp, while continuing to look for Col. Downard and at thesame time take a reading on the situation at the camp.

Bodies Discovered at Dachau

   Lt. Cowling proceeded on up the road towards the camp. Upon approaching a railroad track a large number of box carswere observed on the siding, and upon looking back at thecars, which were open on one side, the lieutenant discoveredthat they were stacked with dead bodies. The lieutenantstopped his vehicle and the two generals and the aide made aquick inspection of the cars. All of the bodies were in anemaciated condition from starvation and many of the bodiesshowed signs of beating. Several were noted to have beenshot through the head. The two newspaper reporters werethere at the time. The General directed the aide to thenproceed up the road towards the camp, which he did. As hisjeep approached within a couple of hundred yards of theentrance, a German officer, a lieutenant, a German soldier,and a civilian wearing a Red Cross armband stepped aroundthe corner of a building, carrying a white flag. Thelieutenant, the guard, and the driver of the jeep dismountedand covered the officer as he approached. As the officerapproached within a few feet of Lt. Cowling he asked ifthere was an American officer present. The lieutenantinformed his that he was an officer and the German repliedthat he wished to surrender the camp. At this point,General Linden arrived and the lieutenant informed him thathe wished to surrender the camp of Dachau to him and thatapproximately 100 SS guards still remained in the prison andthat they were armed. These guards, however, had beenordered not to shoot the American soldiers but to keep onlythe prisoner's in and to keep them in check. The Red Crossman said there were approximately 40,000 inmates of theprison, many of whom were half-crazed. At this point smallarms fire cam from the left flank. The group took covermomentarily and the General had the German officer and thesoldier stand in the open facing the fire. The fire soonlet up, however, and the General sent the aide on up intothe camp to get the situation. He also sent an officer,Major Avery, back to the 222d Infantry to get two companiesof infantry up to the camp as soon as possible to takecharge of it.

  Lt. Cowling went through one gate of the camp and justoff to the right of the gate about 50 yards observed a towerwith German soldiers in the tower. Lt. Cowling called outto them to come down. Approximately 12 soldiers came downout of the tower and the lieutenant sent them on back withthe General's guards. The lieutenant, one of the General'sguards, and the two newspaper reporters then proceeded on tothe entrance to the actual camp cantonment. As the jeepapproached and then crossed a small moat surrounding themain camp, its path was blocked by a dead civilian square inthe center of the road. The civilian had been shot in theface and from the looks of the body had been dead not morethan 24 hours. A German soldier guiding the lieutenant gotoff the fender of the jeep and lifted the body out of theway. The jeep then moved up to the iron gate which was theentrance to the main camp enclosure. A guard house was oneither side of the gate. The lieutenant did not noticeanyone in either of the houses when he first arrived at thegate. Lt. Cowling opened the gate and entered theenclosure. The large enclosure just inside the gate wasperfectly clear of any human being when the lieutenantentered the gate, and the two newspaper reporters alsoentered with the lieutenant. The lieutenant had been in theenclosure approximately a minute and a half when peoplebegan pouring from the low, barrack type, black buildings. The people were thin, dirty, and half starved. They rushedto the American officer and the two newspaper reporters andattempted to shake their hands, kiss their hands or face, orjust to touch their clothing. They even grabbed them andthrew them up into the air, shouting in many differentlanguages the whole time, Many of the men were crying and agood percentage of them were half-crazed with excitement and the brutal treatment which they had received while in thecamp. The lieutenant finally managed to break free, returnto the gate, and close it before more than one or two hadgotten out. The people pushed against the gate andattempted to reach between the bars and shake the officer'shands or touch them. At that point the lieutenant noticedsomething in the window of the guard house to the left ofthe gate. The German officer was waving a white flag out ofthe window, which practically touched the lieutenant'sshoulder. Lt. Cowling immediately went around the enteredthe guard house. Inside were two officers and six Germansoldiers. One of the officers asked if there was anAmerican officer present and Lt. Cowling informed him thathe was an officer. The German told the officer that hewished to surrender and wished safe conduct from himself andhis men. The Germans were all armed with pistols andrifles. The German could speak a little English and Lt.Cowling had him place all the weapons outside the door andthen remain in place inside the guard room. Lt. Cowlingthen went back outside the guard house and sent his driverback for the other guards.

  By this time, the square was completely filled withthousands of yelling, screaming people. They were allcrowded up to the edge of a ditch just inside the barbedwire fence enclosing the encampment. General Linden arrivedat the gate just as several of the people threw themselvesacross the ditch and onto the barbed wire. The wire wascharged with electricity and those on the wire diedinstantly. Lt. Cowling personally saw three of them diethis way. By this time several inmates of the prison, manyof whom were infected with typhus, lice, and possibly otherdiseases, had managed to hoist themselves up to the windowsof the guard house and were pouring out of those doors. General Linden directed his guards to get the peoplepersonally pushed a number of them back into the enclosure. Lt. Cowling went back into the guard house, got the eightGerman prisoners, brought them outside, and took them to theopposite side of the moat. About this time Col. Fellenz ofthe 1st Ba 222d arrived with several of his men. There werealso some members of the 45th Division present. Germanguards still remained in all of the towers surrounding theprison, with the exception of the one previously mentionedand two right at the gate. As some of the men of Col.Fellenz's battalion and some of the men of the 45th Divisionapproached one of the towers, some of the guards fired intothe crowd which was attempting to break through the fence. The doughboys of the two infantry divisions shot the SSguards who had commenced the prison. In the meantime anofficer of Col. Fellenz's battalion had cut the switch whichcharged the fence surrounding the prison, to prevent anymore of the half-crazed inmates from dying from its electriccharge.

  There was still considerable disorder at this time andlarge numbers of prisoners where attempting to climb overthe fence or come through the gates. A few Americansoldiers had a good deal of difficulty in attempting to makethe prisoners, who were of all nationalities, understandthat they must remain inside the enclosure until theAmericans could arrange proper facilities for release. Inone or two instances it was necessary for officers to giveorders for the men to fire over the heads of the inmates togain their attention and get them back inside the enclosure. In one instance, just as the prisoners were pushed backinside the enclosure, an enlisted man of the 45th Divisionpicked up a number of chains, shackles, etc. which had beenused to chain the prisoners, and he rattled them at thecrowd. General Linden ordered the man, who was standingdirectly in front of him, to drop the chain at once as theywere causing increased excitement among the prisoners andthey were surging forward in an attempt to get through andgrab the chains and again break out of the confines of theenclosure. The man, however, disobeyed the General's orderand turned his back on him, raising the chains above hishead and shaking them again. In an attempt to get the man'sattention, General Linden tapped the man on the helmet witha stick he was carrying. The man turned and the Generalagain directed him to drop his chains. This time the mandropped the chains and walked off, although he was verysullen, showing no military discipline or respect. Thesight of the chains had made the crowd again surge forwardand some of them were again streaming through the gate. Itwas impossible to hear above the noise and hub-bub. GeneralLinden ordered the men back at the point of his pistol and acaptain of the 222d Infantry fired his rifle into the air toget their attention. The men again were pushed back insidethe enclosure and a semblance of order was restored,although it was necessary for the next hour or so tocontinue a close vigilance to keep members of the crowd frombreaking through the fence and out of the enclosure.

   The next hour was spent by General Linden and his group,including Col. Fellenz and some elements of his battalion anda Colonel Sprague of the 45th Division and some of his men,in attempting to calm the crowd and make them realize theywould have to remain in the prison until they could getproper food and medical attention, deloused, etc. A majorof the American army who was a prisoner of the camp and alieutenant commander of the British navy, a Canadian officerand a Belgian officer volunteered their services in settingup a committee within the prisoners themselves to help inrestoring order and organizing the camp in preparation forthe release of its prisoners. Finally, with the aid ofthese people, the crowd was calmed down and order wasrestored.

   An Associated Press reporter and another reporterrequested permission from General Linden to go through thecamp on an inspection. General Linden consented and offeredto accompany the two reporters. Lt. Cowling and one of theguards went through with the General and the two reporters. The major who had been a prisoner provided a guard for theparty. The first place the group visited was a large yardin which piles of assorted clothing were stacked. In onepile was shoes, in another pants, and so on. We were thenshown a room which looked something similar to a receptionroom, and off it was another room with the marking "Showers"on it. Actually it was a gas chamber used by the Germans tokill the prisoners. The camp also contained four largeovens in which the bodies were cremated. As the group movedthrough the camp the prisoners moved to either side to makea pathway, but many reached out to touch the Americans'clothing or to attempt to shake our hands. Many of themwere crying and they were all shouting and yelling. Theguide took the group to numerous piles of bodies which werestacked between the various buildings throughout the camp. These bodies were in piles of anywhere from 2 to 50. All ofthe bodies showed signs of starvation and were mereskeletons, and many of them showed signs of beating. Thebarracks were dirty, low, squat buildings with bunks stackedto the ceiling, four high, and so close together that a mancould hardly squeeze between them, and in many casesprobably had to crawl over them to get into them. In onebuilding the people were all typhus cases and many of themlay on the bare floor, while a few had dirty straw pallets. The men tried to raise up and smile at the Americans or waveat them, but most of them were too weak to do more than lookin their direction.

  The party then returned to the outside of the enclosure. By this time order was restored; the German guards hadeither been killed or taken prisoner and the Americans hadtaken over the camp. The General and the rest of his partythen left the camp and returned to the 222d Infantry CP.

  The General returned to the camp a short time later tobe certain that it was well under control and that thingswere going smoothly. The 42d Division was given theresponsibility of the 32-odd prisoners inside the enclosureand 45th Division was to take care of the buildings on theground outside the enclosure. The General remained thereuntil he was certain that Col. Fellenz had things well inhand and then left, the time being approximately 2130 andreturned to the 222d CP and from there went back to theDivision CP.

WILLIAM J. COWLING III 1st Lt., ADC Aide to Asst. Div.Comdr.

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